The 46th annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) will be held online from May 30 to June 3. It should have been live and direct here in Kingston. But like so many other events, the conference has been dislocated by the pandemic for a second year. One of the profound lessons these unpredictable times have taught us is that we have to constantly adapt and adjust, whether we want to or not.
The conference chair is the formidable Eris Schoburgh, professor of public policy and management at The University of the West Indies, (UWI) Mona, Jamaica. An unapologetic disruptor, Professor Schoburgh has long wanted the Caribbean Studies Association to have a much stronger digital footprint. But some of her conservative colleagues wish to carry on in the same old way, travelling physically to academic conferences year after year. The pandemic has certainly put a spoke in their wheel.
I must admit that as a young academic at Mona in the 1980s, I thoroughly enjoyed attending the annual CSA conferences all across the Caribbean. From Cuba to Curaçao and so many islands in between! The association’s broad definition of the region includes Central America; the Caribbean Coast of Mexico and the United States; as well as Venezuela, Colombia, Northeast Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In 2019, I presented a paper on the lyrics of Burning Spear at the conference in Colombia. It was held in Santa Marta, which is on the Caribbean Sea.
I thought Jamaican beach vendors were aggressive. The ones in Santa Marta put us to shame. Up and down the beach they go and then circle back more than once with the same sales pitch. A persistent vendor tried to sell me a very modest cowrie-shell necklace. I happened to be wearing a rather grand one with three rows of shells that I’d gotten in Ghana. I didn’t even need my ‘A’ level Spanish to cut him off. I simply pointed at his necklace and then mine and we both had a good laugh.
DIVIDE AND RULE
I organised an excursion for a small group of us to visit Cartagena, the main entry point for enslaved Africans into Colombia, and, perhaps, the entire Americas. They resisted the brutal system from the very beginning. In 1530, just five years after the city of Santa Marta was built, Africans totally destroyed it. The city was rebuilt and in the 1550s Africans fighting for emancipation attacked it again.
We didn’t have time on that brief trip to Cartagena to visit Palenque, the first African free village in the Americas. Palenque was established in 1619 by Maroons who fortified themselves against attack. The word Palenque means ‘walled city.’ Referring to an essay by the Colombian anthropologist Aquiles Escalante, Wikipedia notes that the Palenque Maroons “tried to free all enslaved Africans arriving at Cartagena and were quite successful.”
As a consequence, “the Spanish Crown issued a Royal Decree (1691), guaranteeing freedom to the Palenque de San Basilio Africans if they stopped welcoming new escapees. But runaways continued to escape to freedom in San Basilio.” In 1772, the Maroons were offered inclusion in the Mahates district, on condition that they would reject new runaways. Just like our own Maroons, the Palenque were victims of the divide-and-rule policy enforced by Europeans. Betrayal of later escapees was the price of their own freedom.
The Maroons of Palenque created a new language, Palenquero. The vocabulary is based on Spanish but the grammar is not. Spanish speakers cannot understand Palenquero, which fuses elements of the Kikongo language of Angola and Congo, as well as Portuguese. Palenquero is acknowledged as a language. But like our own Jamaican language it was gradually devalued. Approximately 53 per cent of residents of Palenque no longer understand the language.
According to Wikipedia, “In the 20th century, with the introduction of a standard Spanish educational system, Palenquero was often criticized and mocked, as Spanish became the supra regional prescriptive speech. Racial discrimination furthered the deterioration of Palenquero as parents did not feel comfortable continuing to teach their children the language.” It’s a familiar story. In Jamaica, parents still tell their children to “stop chat bad,” using the same language they are rejecting. They want their children to be ‘better’ than themselves. They don’t understand the value of bilingualism.
The tide is turning in Palenque. Wikipedia reports that, “Beginning in 1992, the educational system in Palenque de San Basilio started reintroducing Palenquero in the curriculum. Children resumed their learning of Palenquero, as it was introduced in preschool and a fully equipped cultural centre was constructed to promote the language and culture.” Academic research and conferences, as well as cultural activism are generating new respect for the language and young people are celebrating it as a crucial element of their identity.
I certainly cannot deny the distinctive pleasures of in-person academic conferences. Exchanging ideas face-to-face with colleagues in one’s field is stimulating. And exploring the cultures of the conference destinations is priceless. All the same, virtual conferences now add new value, infinitely widening the audience for intellectual exchange. The theme of this CSA conference is “Reframing Caribbean Influences On Global Spaces: Critically Engaging Perspectives On Human Geography and Risks, Political Economy and Technology.” Quite a mouthful! But the broad theme enables scholars from many disciplines to share their perspectives on the global impact of the Caribbean.
For the full conference programme, visit the CSA website at https://www.caribbeanstudiesassociation.org/. Professor Schoburgh has taken the bold step to stream on YouTube the three plenary sessions and two panels for graduate students. The ceremonial opening on Monday at 9:00 can be accessed at https://youtu.be/fHUCYHBF6ew. After the usual formalities, Dr Claire Nelson, founding president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, DC, will engage in conversation with me on the future of the Caribbean, taking into account the legacies of the past.
One of the highlights of the conference will be the plenary on Marcus Garvey on Wednesday, June 1 at 9:00. Dr Julius Garvey, Professor Rupert Lewis and Dr Natanya Duncan will speak on “Caribbean Dimensions of the Global Garvey Movement and Public Policy Implications for Today.” It will be streamed at https://youtu.be/FlUPKZ-Ca00. The final plenary on Friday, June 3 at 9:00 will be streamed at https://youtu.be/Uw2ZNFS2gbk. Dr Hilary Brown, Mr Hans Fässler, Amb. Dobrene O’Marde and Mr Eric Phillips will focus on the question, “The Reparation Movement In the Americas: Where Are We Now?”
On Monday, May 30 at 3:30 p.m., Dr Karen Carpenter will lead a panel for young scholars on “Building an Academic Career.” The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2z4QS0qKVIk. Dr Leachim Semaj will facilitate another on Thursday, June 2 at 10:30 which can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wGN8CHTSGk. He will focus on an urgent question: “Can a Caribbean Scholar Be ‘Neutral’ When There Is Oppression In Their Nation?” The answer must be a resounding ‘No!’ We cannot depend on politicians to lead the development process. Many of them are committed only to their personal enrichment. It is the creatives in all fields who will continue to inspire us to imagine new possibilities.